Practical experience is important in a job

All things being equal, generalists are better at applying their knowledge than specialists when it comes to migrating knowledge from one organisation to the next. This is the result of new research from Aarhus BSS. For this reason, it is important that employers consider their job advertisements carefully, taking into consideration not only the formal competencies of their future employee, but their practical experience as well.


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Many job advertisements are generic to a degree where they could just as well have been written by a robot, randomly spewing out sentences such as “you are outgoing and flexible” or “you are capable of working on your own as well as in teams.”

But if employers want to ensure that they hire the right candidate and that their new employee can actually apply their experience in the new company, they have to consider their job advertisements quite carefully: What exactly are we looking for? What specific tasks do the candidate need to solve, how are they solved in our organisation, and to what extent do the new employee need to work independently or in teams?

“In a recruitment process, the candidate typically does not share all information with their new employer, who in turn does not share everything with the candidate. But the hiring organisation should be more transparent in terms of what it is looking for. What are the daily routines? Which tasks must be solved? To what extent will the new employee work as part of a larger group or without any colleagues? And what does the candidate bring in terms of practical experience?” explains Jerry Guo, assistant professor at the Department of Management, Aarhus BSS (Aarhus University).


Practical experience affects performance

To take an example, even though two candidates with degrees within software engineering have received the same formal training, they do not share the same practical experiences. These experiences affect how well a new employee can apply their knowledge in the organisation they join – and thus how much the new hire can improve the performance of the organisation as a whole.

These are the results of a new lab-based study conducted by Jerry Guo together with his colleagues Erin Fahrenkopf (Stanford University, USA) and Linda Argote (Carnegie Mellon University, USA), in which 309 people were randomly divided into groups of three people.

The researchers further divided the three-person groups into 62 ‘recipient groups’ and 41 ‘donor groups’. After watching an instruction video, all teams had to build as many origami boats as possible – that is, paper boats in the style of the Japanese art of folding paper, in which you make figures out of a single sheet of paper without using scissors or glue.

In the first phase of the experiment, the participants in the donor groups were taught to fold boats with five folds – a superior approach compared to the routine with nine folds that was taught to the recipient groups. The participants were not informed about the difference until some of the participants in the recipient groups were replaced and the team had to produce boats made with only one of the available folding routines. Meanwhile, the donor groups were trained in the art of folding paper as either generalists or specialists. In the teams working as generalists, the team members had to work independently of each other and fold the boats themselves, completing all parts of the task on their own, whereas in the teams working as specialists, the team members were each responsible for a specific part of the process and only trained in this specific part of the task.

In the middle of the experiment, the researchers randomly selected a member of the recipient group that had to leave the study and then randomly selected and introduced a new member from a donor group with either specialist or generalist experience.

Continuing the experiment, the researchers focused on observing two things: 1. Which team was able to fold the most boats?, and 2. Which routine did they use - did the recipient group choose to continue with their routine using nine folds, or did they switch to the routine using five folds as introduced by the new member of the group? Especially seeing as the routine introduced by the new member consisted of fewer folds, but was of a more complicated nature and resulted in an intermediate product, which did not look like a boat at all, making it harder to judge whether the new approach would enable the team to produce more boats or not.

“In this way, the experiment attempted to replicate authentic situations where an organisation hires a new employee because it believes the person in question to possess improved knowledge compared to the knowledge already held by the team. In these situations, it can take time to assess whether the knowledge brought by the new member will improve the performance of the organisation,” explains Jerry Guo.



”In a recruitment process, the candidate typically does not share all information with their new employer, who in turn does not share everything with the candidate. But the hiring organisation should be more transparent in terms of what it is looking for. "

Jerry Guo, assistant professor at the Department of Management, Aarhus BSS

Generalists are better at transferring knowledge

The results of the study can be found in the article “Personnel Mobility and Organizational Performance: The Effects of Specialist vs Generalist Experience and Organizational Work Structure”, published in the prestigious business economy journal Organization Science.

The article concludes that a new worker’s experience as either a generalist or specialist is crucial in explaining the performance of the organisation after welcoming its new employee.

“We find that generalists joining a new team perform better, regardless of whether the new team itself works as generalists or specialists. No matter the type of group, the best scenario occurs when it is joined by a generalist,” Jerry Guo summarises.

The new generalist performs even better if he or she matches the team’s existing working methods. For this reason, the highest-performing teams in the experiment were the teams of generalists joined by another generalist. Specialists joining teams of specialists likewise did well, whereas the worst scenario occurred when a specialist entered a team working as generalists.

“Knowledge is best transferred when the new worker in a team of generalists also has experience as a generalist, as well as when a specialist worker joins a team of specialists - that is, the performance of an organisation is generally improved when the new employee’s type of experience match that of the organisation, and this is particularly true for generalists,” says Jerry Guo.

According to the researcher, the fact that generalists are the best at transferring their knowledge to a new workplace, and that specialists are the best fit for teams of specialists and generalists the best fit for teams of generalists, is useful knowledge when it comes to understanding what it takes for a new employee to create positive results in their new organisation. It is also useful if the hiring company has to place constructive demands on itself during the recruitment process.

“It is not enough just to look for a software engineer or a MSc in political science. Or to copy the job advertisement used for recruiting employee Søren in order to find his replacement,” says Jerry Guo.


Managers should turn to the organisation

Instead, managers should turn to the organisation and further investigate the specific tasks that need to be solved - or ask Søren what he has really been doing for the past five years.

Because even though two software engineers applying for the same position have the same background, the software engineer with experience working as a generalist will be better at applying their knowledge in the new organisation, all things being equal. And in any case, the candidate’s practical experience need to match the specific tasks they have to perform in the new workplace - as well as the working methods of the new team.

“It is important not to over-interpret a single study, but I think it is worth considering not only to look for educational degrees when recruiting. In some companies, you automatically look for new employees with a Master’s degree, but this study shows that it might be just as important to consider the specific tasks the candidates have previously solved, the way they were solved, and how it fits the needs of the new organisation,” says Jerry Guo, emphasising the strength of causality in the study.

"In field studies, it is often a major challenge to identify causality, because so many causes factor into why people leave their jobs or join a new company. They can all affect knowledge transfer, and you cannot control for these factors. But in our study, the different teams and their different conditions are coincidental - who is present in each team, and who joins or leaves that team - and it is quite cool to be able to isolate the effect like this, meaning that in this case, we are dealing with strong and pure causality,” he says.

The next step could be to examine what Jerry Guo calls ‘co-mobility’.

“We now possess data on the effects when one person moves to a new team. But what happens to the knowledge of the employees when several people join an organisation simultaneously, as it is often the case in the world of banking or consultancy? This could be several new employees from different organisations as well as from the same organisation, e.g. as the result of an acquisition or when a single company recruits numerous new employees at once, e.g. graduates. What will they bring to the organisation in terms of knowledge, and where will they be the most able to apply their knowledge?” he asks.


Research into mismatches

It is also important that management and HR distinguish between the knowledge that is relevant to solving a task and the way that work is carried out in practice in the organisation.

A job might require specialist knowledge, but at the same time we know - and must take into account when planning training and onboarding - that specialists find it hard to apply their knowledge and share it with generalist colleagues. Perhaps it would be best to introduce a new specialist to all the specific elements of their new tasks in order to help them adapt and contribute to the new organisation, as well as to ensure that both the employee and the company benefits from the employment.

“Otherwise, you risk hiring someone who holds deep knowledge but is unable to apply it,” observes Jerry Guo. Going forward, he sees major research potential in exploring how managers should respond in the case of a mismatch.

“Our research suggests that both generalists and specialists would be challenged by joining an organisation if their new team works in a different way than they are used to. That makes it important to identify solutions to such situations,” he says.

It also means that exclusively hiring generalists is not an easy solution to the problem - it all depends on the specific requirements and needs. Because even though they are the best at transferring knowledge, generalists too will run into problems if they join a team of specialists.



From research to practice

For employees...

  • it is important to develop generalist experience career-wise, seeing as it translates the best in new contexts
  • and all things being equal, to join organisations with a method and division of work that match your own experience
  • if there is a mismatch, generalists should try to learn more about their colleagues and the way work is organised - and specialists can try to negotiate bringing important former colleagues to the new job, or learn the aspects of their tasks with which they have less experience.

For managers…. 

  • it is important to remember that the way you work and organise tasks in the organisation affects who you should hire
  • in generalist teams, other generalists will be best suited to join the team, whereas specialists fit better in specialist teams. If you want to ensure that a new employee improves the performance of the organisation, hire people whose experience suit the way work is done in the organisation.
  • if there is a mismatch, begin by introducing the new generalist employee to the specialist tasks with which they have the most experience, or which is less vulnerable in terms of the performance of the organisation. Specialists who find it hard to adjust can be paired with colleagues in the beginning, or they can be assigned smaller tasks, which allow them to build experience as a generalist before they are introduced to larger tasks.

Fahrenkopf, E., Guo, J., Argote, L.: ”Personnel Mobility and Organizational Performance: The Effects of Specialist vs. Generalist Experience and Organizational Work Structure”. Organization Science (2020)